When I heard the news on Sunday about the terrorist attack at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, I felt ill. My heart aches for the Sikh community whose members can no longer feel safe in their temples–spiritual places that should be a sanctuary from the ignorance, prejudice, and hate of the groups like those to which the terrorist belonged. The attack has fostered fear in other communities of immigrants or minority religions around the country. This one person—a part of a tiny but loud group of haters in this country—has damaged our shared sense of security.
Although a great majority of Americans may feel like I do, we must remember that we are not helpless in the face of this senseless act of terrorism. As we mourn the victims, we stand in solidarity with the Sikh community and with the targets of religious bigotry everywhere.
We recognize that this violence is not only an offense against Sikhs, it is an assault on the core values of this country. Just like the first immigrants, new waves of immigrants have come expecting to freely practice their own religions. Religious freedom is a core principle of the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An attack at a place of worship is an attack on this fundamental freedom.
What can we do to stop these attacks—to stop the violence? We will never know all that motivated the killer, but what we do know so far suggests that the attacker was a belligerent espouser of hate—someone who felt entitled and empowered by his hateful words and actions. In The Advocates for Human Rights’ own work to educate the public about the realities of immigration and to dispel the negative myths that create hostility in our communities, we have seen how anti-immigrant propaganda has fueled known hate groups. For years we have seen immigrants blamed for every possible problem in our society. Politicians use scare tactics about people who look and talk differently from “Americans” to try to gain political advantage. States have passed laws with the express purpose of creating hostile communities where immigrants do not feel welcome.
If public policy purposefully creates hostile communities, should we be surprised by the type of domestic terrorism we saw at the Sikh temple? We need to work together to counter the flood of hateful speech from individuals, the media, institutions, and policy makers with language of tolerance, mutual respect, and responsibility to promote and protect the human rights of every person in our country.
I know that the programs like our One Voice Minnesota Anti-Bias Initiative and our human rights education work here at The Advocates are one way to do this. We all have opportunities to speak up for what is right every day. If we take these opportunities, together, we can be much louder than the voices of hate.
Robin Phillips is the Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.